Try ''King Kong,'' because classics aren't all as quaint as you think, says Ty Burr

By Ty Burr
January 31, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST
King Kong: Everett Collection

Why certain violent movies can be fun for kids

You want violence in the media? Forget about Eminem and pro wrestling and whichever 1,365th iteration of the teen slasher genre is playing this week. If you want to mess your kids up good, rent ’em the 1933 version of ”King Kong.” There’s a back story here, of course. I have two daughters, ages 3 and 5, and like the latte sipping film drooler that I am, I’ve taken it upon myself to introduce them to the classics when time allows. This can be anything from channel surfing over to Bugs Bunny on the Cartoon Network to renting ye oldie but goodies like ”Singin’ in the Rain” and ”The Adventures of Robin Hood.” They get their fill of Powerpuff Girls and Disney, too, but I see this as my way of letting them know there’s more out there than Big Macs.

Lately I’ve been trying them out on black and white. They resisted a little until they each found a movie they cottoned to, and from then on it was clear sailing. For Natalie, the 3 year old, it was Buster Keaton in ”The General” (she’s into trains, and, okay, I’m showing silent movies to my kids, so sue me. She liked it, and I got to ”read” it to her). For Eliza, it was Shirley Temple in anything (true, Temple creeps me out, but watching Miss Fixit set the grown ups right is a major power trip for girls).

Then I decided to try ”King Kong.” Oooooh, sign me up as a poster boy for the Bad Dad club. Have you seen this thing lately? Sure, it’s a great film, a special effects pioneer, a stirring tale of monkey meets girl, monkey loses girl, monkey flosses teeth with Second Avenue El. It’s also, in the scenes set on Kong’s home island, where our giant ape friend trounces all human and dinosaur comers with merry abandon, violently intense beyond belief.

You forget these things, right? ”King Kong,” la dee dah, creakily harmless old time fantasy adventure. Here’s what happened: When Kong took Fay Wray into the dark jungles and the good guys followed, my daughters inched closer to me on the couch. When the pursuers crossed the lagoon on a raft and were upended by a submerged brontosaurus, they started whimpering. When the brontosaurus picked a human off the raft and STARTED CHEWING HIM WHILE THE MAN’S DEATH SHRIEKS FILLED THE FETID AIR, they burst into terrified screams.

I hit ‘pause,’ thought about explaining that — hey, brontosauruses were actually herbivores — but decided it was a moot point. After some discussion, my older daughter wanted to keep watching so her sister happily bailed upstairs to hang out with her mom. Eventually we get to the big face off between King Kong and the tyrannosaurus rex — which as you may recall ends with the giant ape cracking the dinosaur’s lower jaw while blood gushes from its mouth. Eliza had her hands to her head and was screaming like a fire alarm; I leapt up and, mentally slapping myself, shut the damn thing off.

Now, here’s where it gets interesting. When I turned it off, my daughter looked at me and said, ”What are you DOING?!?” Saving you from massive future psychiatric bills, I said (in not quite so many words). ”I want to finish the movie,” she said. It’s too scary, I said; you’re freaking out. ”I know,” she said. ”I LIKE it.”

This pulled me up short. She was, in essence, playing the ”Scream” defense, saying, ”I know it’s terrifying but I also know it’s a movie and I like the adrenaline rush, so please back off.” So I did. After further discussion, we watched the rest of the movie, her teetering in delicious movie fear and me wondering when the people from Child Welfare Services were going to show up at the door. The only time Eliza was really, truly upset was at the end, when dear old Kong takes that header off the Empire State Building. Seems she’d never seen a movie where the hero — unexpected hero though he may be — dies at the end.

My bad, I admit it. To my relief, we’ve had no nightmares; ”that scary movie” is the subject of laughs now. But I’m a much more careful about thinking of classics as the knee jerk antidote to modern mayhem. And Eliza? Well, she’s had her introduction into the pleasures of safe cinematic terror. Think she’ll be ready for Hitchcock by the time she’s 7?